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Saint Sergius of Radonezh

While cleaning out some old floppy disks I found this paper that I wrote in 1991 for an undergraduate Russian & Eastern Studies seminar on the Eastern Slavic Variant of Orthodox Culture.  Not particularly deep, but hey, what do you expect from a 22-year-old?


Sergius of Radonezh iconRAE 401
Dr. Rowland
Spring 1991

Saint Sergius of Radonezh

As patron saint of Muscovite Russia in the fourteen century, Sergius of Radonezh is regarded as one of the leading figures of the monastic revival of Russia, as well as a man of great political and diplomatic importance. Like other important religious and political figures of his time, Sergius is lost in layers of myth and legend in the chronicles and Lives of the day. In order to understand fully the role of this great historic figure in the minds of the Russian people, it is necessary to examine various records that speak of Sergius as well as the Life of the saint.

The date of Sergius’ birth is disputed but experts agree that it was in the early fourteenth century, sometime between 1314 and 1321.[1] Most of the information about his biography comes from his Life. Sergius was born Bartholomew (Varfolomei), one of three sons of a boyar family. The family fell into economic ruin in 1329 when the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan Kalita, incorporated the family’s home province of Rostov into his holdings. The family moved to Radonezh, a small town northeast of Moscow. In their later years, Sergius’ parents took the tonsure and moved into the life of the Church. Sergius, with his brother Steven (Stefan) then traveled into the wilderness and some nine miles from Radonezh began a life of asceticism. The place where they settled was to be the future site of the Holy Trinity Monastery.

Steven was unable to bear the life of a hermit and left Sergius to join the brotherhood of the Monastery of the Epiphany in Moscow. There he was a close associate of Alexis (Aleksii), the future metropolitan of Russia and later became the father confessor of the Grand Prince and other greater boyars. Through his brother, Sergius was closely linked with the court and the Church hierarchy.[2]

Sergius spent up to two years in isolation until gradually a group of disciples began to form about him. Sometime between 1345 and 1346 he took the tonsure and organized a small community. Together with his followers, Sergius built a small church and dedicated it to the Holy Trinity. Later in either 1353 or 1354 Sergius was appointed as abbot of the monastery by Athanasius (Afansii), Bishop of Pereyaslavl. Because of his love for isolation and his lack of desire to be an abbot over many, Sergius was a rather liberal leader, allowing his followers much freedom. This drew some negative attention from both Metropolitan Alexis and Philotheos, the Patriarch of Constantinople, which resulted in the institution of Studion Rule in the monastery.

There has been much speculation about the spiritual and mental disciplines of Sergius. Of chief importance is the question of whether or not Sergius was acquainted with the contemplation and mental prayer techniques practiced by the Hesychasts of Mount Athos and Byzantium. Wigzell contends, that the ascetics of Russia were not practicing Hesychasts though it is evidenced by in the many Greek mystical writings of the church library that Sergius and his followers were interested in personal vision and divine inspiration.[3] Further, she indicates that links with Athos and Constantinople were active during this time and clerics from Constantinople as well as monks from Athos commonly made visits to Russia in an attempt to keep the Russian churches under the power of the Eastern Church.

Sergius was also involved in several matters of state concerning the Princes of Moscow who were feuding in an attempt to consolidate power. His most famous action was that of blessing Dmitry Donskoy before the battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380. A more complete account of Sergius’ political activities will be given after a synopsis of his Life.

The Life, Acts, and Miracles of our Blessed and Holy Father Sergius of Radonezh was first written around 1418 by Epiphanius (Epifanii) "The Wise" and was then revised several times between 1440 and 1459 by an immigrant from the Balkans, Pachomius the Serb (Pakhomii Logofet Serb), both of whom were monks in the Holy Trinity Monastery.[4] According to the life, Sergius was born the second son of his father, Cyril, and his mother, Mary. Before his birth he cried out three times in the womb during the three most solemn moments in the liturgy while his mother was attending church.[5] His parents were virtuous and favored in the sight of God.[6] Cyril tried to teach his sons to read and write, but no matter how he tried he was unable to teach his son Bartholomew. The story tells of the boy’s long secret prayers to God in which he asked for divine help in understanding what his father was trying to teach. One day young Bartholomew was sent by his father to search for a lost foal when he came across a monk "with the appearance of an angel." When the priest asked Bartholomew what he was searching for the boy replied that he wanted with all his soul to understand the holy scriptures. The old man said a prayer and gave Bartholomew a piece of unleavened bread from the Holy Sacrament which the boy ate. On doing so he received full understanding of written language. From this time on Bartholomew knew that his destiny lay in the service of the Church. His parents asked that he wait for their deaths before entering the monastic life. After his parents had received the tonsure and entered a monastery and a convent, Sergius went into the wilderness with his brother Steven as mentioned before. On his brother’s departure, Sergius lived alone; his only company was a friendly bear that he would feed when it came for a visit. Demons dressed in Lithuanian garb visited Sergius and tried unsuccessfully to frighten him away from his sanctuary.[7]

The great piety and humility of Sergius is stressed in the Life with reports of his fasting, his addiction to hard physical labor, and his general disregard for his own physical appearance, preferring his humble, threadbare clothing to gold offered him by the Metropolitan. An account is given of a man who came to the monastery on a pilgrimage to see Sergius. The monks told him that the master was toiling in the garden and that he should wait until Sergius was through. The man, peeping through a fence, caught a glimpse of Sergius, ragged and dirty from his labors. When the holy father came to see him the man insulted him and said that he had come to see a great prophet, but instead was shown a beggar. Sergius fell before him and, in a gesture of complete humility, praised him for his evaluation. Just then a prince arrived to see Sergius and fell before the father’s feet. The first man, seeing the error of his way, asked forgiveness and later came to join the monastery under Sergius, giving up all that he owned.

After a time Studion Rule was forced on Sergius and his monastery by the Patriarch Philotheos as mentioned before. But Sergius, who was not enamored with the idea of leading his fellow monks, administered the monastery meekly. Rather than stern punishments he used soft rebukes and allowed the monks much freedom. This did not agree at all with Sergius’ brother, Steven, when he returned to the monastery. But rather than argue with his brother, Sergius left the monastery. After appeals from the members of Holy Trinity, Alexis ordered Sergius to return to his fold and once again care for them. On his return there was much rejoicing and no malice was to be found.

The miracles of Sergius are then recorded in the Life. Sergius is reputed to have brought a dead child back to life. When the parents rejoiced and wished to tell all of their neighbors, Sergius said that the child had only been sleeping and warned them not to tell anyone that he had raised the child from the dead.[8]

Sergius became renowned and peasants came to him for arbitration of their disputes. Once a peasant came to him, complaining that a rich man had taken his pig and slaughtered it without remuneration to the peasant. Sergius admonished the rich man, telling him that he should pay for what he had taken. The rich man promised to make amends but on leaving Sergius’ presence had a change of heart. After having decided that he would not repay the peasant, the rich man discovered that the meat he had stolen was full of worms and even his dogs would not eat it.

Sergius is also reputed to have seen visions. Once to him and a few of his disciples appeared a flock of birds without number. A voice told Sergius that his monastery would prosper and that his followers would be innumerable like the flock that was before him.[9] Sergius also is said to have seen a vision of the Immaculate One with the apostles Peter and John. A few of Sergius’ disciples, it is written, saw a figure encompassed in a bright light with Sergius during a church service. When his disciples asked who the figure was, Sergius told his followers that the person had been his own personal angel who always helped him when he led the services of the church.

Once a Greek bishop from Constantinople came to visit Sergius. On seeing Sergius he was stricken blind by the countenance of the holy father. At the touch of Sergius’ hand, something like scales fell from the man’s eyes and his vision was restored.[10] The bishop praised Sergius as a celestial man and an earthly angel.

Lastly the Life covers some of the political actions of Sergius. It is written that Prince Dmitry Donskoy was to fight against the Mongol Khan Mamai in the battle of Kulikovo Field. Sergius blessed Dmitry and prophesied his victory over Mamai. On the field at Kulikovo, when the troops began to become more nervous, Sergius is said to have appeared and rallied the troops on to battle. Prince Dmitry won the battle and Sergius fame continued to grow. He was asked to consecrate the sight of the Church of the Holy Epiphany by Grand Duke Dmitry. He also consecrated the sight for the Church of the Immaculate Mother of God for Prince Vladimir.

In the political world of the religious hierarchy there was an abbot named Michael who plotted for his own gain. He became a bishop and said many things against Sergius. The holy Father, rather than taking offense, warned only that pride would be the bishop’s undoing. On a boat to Constantinople for a visit to his superiors, Michael fell ill and died.

Sergius died in 1392 at the age of 78. It is written that a sweet fragrance flowed from his body. The brothers of the monastery wept for their lost shepherd and the host of angels welcomed Sergius into the heavenly kingdom.

This Life follows a typical hagiographical pattern. It begins with a pious young boy who grows into a great servant of God. It is full of allusions to other biblical passages (so noted in the footnotes). The Life follows well established "norms" from earlier works. There are clear parallels between this work and the Life of Theodosius such as the praise of qualities such as obedience, modesty and meekness. Sergius, like his predecessors practiced abstinence, fasting, and tearful prayer.[11] However, the character of Sergius appears to be more refined than Theodosius. All accounts given in the Life indicate that he was completely devoted to his humble way of life. There is also no reference to him as a strong leader in the face of dissension. Rather he avoids conflict at all costs and would rather move away than raise a fight which would detract from the spirit of love and humility that he tries so hard to maintain in the monastery. The passages of the visions of Sergius are believed to have been added by Pachomius. These are examples of the faith of the South being incorporated into the Russian ascetic tradition.

Now the political actions of Sergius will be examined. It is interesting to note that there is almost no mention in the Life of this field of Sergius career and with good reason. Epiphanius, truly "the Wise," showed good judgement when excluding these actions from his hagiography. In general they would appear incongruous with the pious life of the saint. Sergius had close ties to Grand-prince Dmitry and was God-father to two of Dmitry’s sons[12]. He went on several diplomatic missions for him including the conclusion of the "eternal peace" between Moscow and Ryazan in 1385.[13] Controversy is stirred by the holy father’s involvement in the machinations of the Grand-prince in his relations with Prince Boris of Nizhny Novgorod in 1635. Boris, backed by the Tartars, challenged the authority of Dmitry, who wished to give Nizhny Novgorod to Boris’ older brother in compensation for Dmitry’s annexation of the elder’s city of Suzdal. When Boris resisted, the Metropolitan Alexis backed Dmitry and ordered Sergius to travel as an envoy to Nizhny Novgorod to invite Boris to Moscow. It was the custom of the day to take visiting princes who were in opposition and imprison them if they fell for such a ruse. Boris, knowing what would happen were he to accept the invitation, refused to go to Moscow. Under the orders of Alexis, Sergius closed down all of the churches of Nizhny Novgorod. This action, though commonly used in the Latin West, was unprecedented in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.[14] As previously mentioned, this event is excluded from the Life and Sergius’ name is often excluded from the list of delegates in the envoy sent to Boris as told in the chronicles of the time.

The second major "scandal" is concerned with the appointment of Cyprian (Kiprian), a Bulgarian Hesychast, as the successor of Alexis to the position of metropolitan. Cyprian was appointed in 1375, three years after the death of Alexis. The Patriarch of Constantinople, wishing to reestablish firm control over the areas of Russia and Lithuania that Alexis had neglected, refused the request of the Grand Prince Dmitry to divide the Metropolate into two parts. Dmitry decided to deny the legitimacy of Cyprian’s appointment and promote his own candidate. In 1378, after having been rudely denied permission to enter Moscow, Cyprian sent a plea out to Sergius, who sided with the Patriarch and backed Cyprian as the legitimate Metropolitan. There is much speculation to support the fact that Sergius’ blessing of Dmitry Donskoy before his famous battle at Kulikovo Field was conditional, hinging on his acceptance of Cyprian as the Metropolitan.[15] This type of political maneuvering is of course not the stuff of which Lives are made.

Metropolitan Alexis offered to nominate Sergius as his successor as Metropolitan. But Sergius rejected this proposal — an indicator that perhaps he was more content to stay at home and pursue personal spiritual interests. From this point it was only twelve years to Sergius’ death. He left a prosperous monastery that grew into a spiritual and cultural center and at the time of his death was the most important in all of Russia.[16]


[1] The year 1314 is given by Meyendorff in his book Byzantium and the Rise of Russia, p. 323. Wizgell gives the date of 1321 in The Modern Encyclopedia of Soviet and Russian History (MERSH), p. 77; however, she does note that this date is not certain.

[2] Wigzell, pp. 77-78.

[3] Wizgell, p. 78.

[4] Meyendorff, p. 133.

[5] This follows the story in Luke 1:41 wherein upon the arrival of the Virgin Mary at her cousin Elizabeth’s house, John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. See Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, p. 200.

[6] The Life of Sergius will be retold almost entirely from the account given by Serge Zenkovsky in his book Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, except where otherwise noted.

[7] The reference to the demons being dressed as Lithuanians has political overtones. As a general rule the Russian mind has always been xenophobic. This passage links outsiders — here specifically the people of the Baltic region — with satanic powers.

[8] This passage is parallel to the passage found in Matthew 9:23-26 where Jesus also brought a child back to life and claimed that the child had been merely sleeping.

[9] This harkens to the Old Testament covenant of Jehovah with Abraham that his seed would be innumerable. There is also a vague connection to the dove that visited upon Jesus and John the Baptist at Jesus’ baptism when he entered the ministry.

[10] This event is parallel to the experience of Saul (later, apostle Paul) on the road to Damascus. When he was brought to Ananias his sight also returned when "scales" fell from his eyes at the touch of God’s appointed servant.

[11] These qualities are found in the Life of Theodosius — Zenkovsky, p. 108.

[12] Meyendorff, p. 135.

[13] Ibid., p. 135.

[14] This account is covered in Fedotov, pp. 225-226; Meyendorff, p. 137; and Wigzell, p. 79.

[15] Meyendorff, p. 135; Wizgell, p. 39.

[16] Wigzell, p. 79.


Works Cited

Fedotov, George. The Russian Religious Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Meyendorff, John. Byzantium and the Rise of Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Wigzell, Faith. "Sergii of Radonezh." Modern Encyclopedia of Soviet and Russian History (MERSH). Gulf Breeze, Florida: Academic International Press, 1977.

Zenkovsky, Serge. Medieval Russian’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974.